I think the breaking point for Governor Meriwether Lewis came when the Federal Government denied the bill he submitted for translating the territorial laws into French. It was only $18. And even in 1808 that was not much money – it would be about $245 today. But it was just another example of the penny pinching of the bean counters in the administration of the new President James Madison.
The politicians were not very kind to Meriwether Lewis. For risking his life and limbs in the wilderness for three long years, for being shot, for repeatedly almost starving to death and almost drowning several times, when he got back alive the Captain received $1,228 in back pay (equal to about $16,000 today) and a coupon good for 1,600 acres of Federal land. (The official price of which was just $2 an acre – so the equivalent of another $3,000.) Added to this would be his yearly budget/salary as Governor of $2,000, ($26,000 today), out of which he had to draw all incidental expenses, among which was now deducted that $18. So that was just another kick in the behind.
During their return voyage in 1806, Lewis and Clark had invited the Manndan Chief White Coyote to visit President Jefferson in Washington, and the chief had impulsively agreed. Jefferson was delighted, and the visit had cemented relations with the strongest tribe in the middle Missouri River country. But it proved difficult to get White Coyote and his entourage back home. An attempt in 1807 had been turned back by the Indian tribe, the Arikarass, at cost of the lives of three soldiers and the leg of a fourth man. More soldiers would have to be dispatched and bribes paid to allow the chief and his family to get home. But the price tag of this diplomatic mercy mission had risen to $7,000. The Washington bean counters were appalled. And they sort of had a point.
See, as the last government official to pass off the chief, Lewis had handed the problem over to the St. Louis-Missouri River Fur Company, a private enterprise corporation. One hundred fifty men had marched and paddled up the Missouri River to the Manndan villages. They had returned the chief, and had then continued on, trapping beaver, otter and bear. All the pelts were shipped back to the company warehouse in St. Louis. The profits had gone to the shareholders, but the bill had gone to the Government. Sound familiar? And two of the shareholders in the St. Louis Fur Company were Governor Meriwether Lewis and his brother Reuben Lewis.
These details had been pointed out to the bureaucrats in Washington by the priggish Frederick Bates (above), Territorial Lieutenant Governor and envious enemy of Governor Lewis. Bates had kept Washington very well informed about every misstep made by the Governor and even invented a few. The result was that the Madison administration, which had not picked Lewis, had begun going over the Governor's expenses with a fine tooth comb. They grudgingly paid most of the bill for White Coyote's return, but managed to find $940 they could refuse to reimburse Lewis for. That was almost half his yearly budget! Worse still, the Madison administration had re-opened the books on the three year old Lewis and Clark Expedition, and were now demanding a detailed accounting as to why a budget of $2,500 had ended up costing $40,000. The biggest reasons was, of course, that an enthusiastic congress, at Jefferson's urging, had added those land grants for everybody. But the Madison administration had suddenly developed amnesia about that.
The reality was that the land grants had not cost the government a dime, except in the accounting ledgers of the bean counters. But over the summer it took a month for one of the bureaucrats' demands for more paperwork to travel from Washington to St. Louis, and at least another month for Governor Lewis to respond. In the winter there was no mail at all, and for months at a time the misconstructions and misunderstandings simply piled one atop the next. It was a system made for bureaucratic misunderstandings, and the denial of the $18 translating fee was just the final straw. Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the Territory, must return to Washington and make his case face-to-face with the Federal bean counters.
In mid-August of 1809 Meriwether Lewis signed papers granting William Clark and two other friends Power-of-Attorney, in case anything should happen to him on his trip back east. It was a standard precaution, like buying flight insurance in the 21st century. You see Lewis had finally found a wife, and he had to provide for her. Lewis also sent a letter off to the Secretary of War protesting his treatment, and a letter to his mother, telling her he was looking forward to seeing her in Virginia. None of these were the actions of man who did not expect to return.
The St. Louis Gazette reported on Monday, 4 September, 1809 that Lewis had left town “in good health”. aboard a "Kentucky Ark", usually a twelve feet wide and thirty feet long flatboat which floated clumsily down the Mississippi. Lewis was bound for New Orleans, where he intended upon boarding a sailing ship for the long voyage around the isthmus of Spanish Florida and then up the East Coast to Washington. But September was probably the worst time to be traveling by river in America. And that September in particular.
It was the dry season of a dry year. The river was low, and the flatboat grounded methodically on every sand bar. It was brutally hot, the mosquito population feasted on every inch of bare flesh, and Lewis suffered a relapse of the malaria he had contracted during the expedition. After a week of travel, 180 river miles downriver, his flatboat arrived at the outpost of New Madrid. Lewis had now crossed the border from his own Northern Louisiana Territory, to the providence of Southern Louisiana, run from New Orleans. Lewis clearly felt uncomfortable, and after taking just two days to recuperate, the Governor order the boat to shove off again.
Lewis left New Madrid on 13 September, and two days later the boat put in at the fourth of the Chickasaw Bluffs (and the future site of Memphis) at Fort Pickering. . Here Governor Lewis was carried off the river on a stretcher, badly dehydrated from his malaria fevers. He was met by Captain Gilbert Russel, commander of the sixteen man outpost. Captain Russel immediately turned over his own bed to the Governor, but was Lewis really so sick he could not continue the boat trip to New Orleans? Was he crazed by illness to the point of paranoia? But from the moment he had landed at New Madrid, Lewis' behavior had changed. His plans certainly did. It almost seems that Governor Meriwether Lewis now thought of himself as being behind enemy lines.